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WIOA: New Opportunities for People with Disabilities

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) represents new opportunities for job seekers with disabilities to access employment, education, training and support services to succeed in the labor market. The enactment of WIOA clarifies and reinforces the responsibility of American Job Centers to be fully accessible, offer necessary accommodations to job seekers with disabilities, and provide training that leads to career pathways for 21st century jobs.

Below are edited excerpts from the transcript of the February 25th LEAD Center webinar, "WIOA from a Disability Perspective: An Overview," from Bridget Brown, Executive Director of the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP).

What are the most important promising changes included in WIOA that will positively advance employment and economic outcomes for people with disabilities?

Bridget Brown: I think that one of the most important changes is the focus on serving the business customer. Ultimately, that is where we're going to have the success with job seekers. I do also think it's important to distinguish that there is a difference between serving a business and referring to them as employers; it's a vocabulary change that I think we really need to institutionalize. Companies are not in business to hire our job seekers. So we need to refer to them as businesses and change the way in which we are preparing the job seekers and really marketing their skills and their ability. I do think that that is one of the most important changes. It may seem semantics, but if you keep the local businesses happy, they will be hiring your job seekers, including individuals with disabilities. I also think that the focus on providing more incumbent training, some more flexibility around the career pathways and work-based learning opportunities is going to be key, particularly with individuals who may have gaps in their employment history or may just be starting down the path, and that would include some individuals who have disabilities. Once a business owner can see that, regardless of an ability or a disability, this individual can come into the workplace and immediately contribute to this business owner’s bottom line – and where better to do that than a work-based learning opportunity? They are going to be more likely to hire, retain and promote that individual.

The workforce development system is moving away from the tiered service approach and putting a new focus on career services and training. What kind of change does this represent in the process and in the way services are delivered to job seekers with and without disabilities?

Bridget Brown: We were actually very excited to see the elimination of the tiered approach. It was something that we had been wanting for a while. What this does is it goes towards a streamlined process for the job seeker. You're not having them jump through hoops that really do not benefit them. For the professional at the local level, whether they're in a one-stop, or in a favorite community-based organization, it's a different type of skill. And what we're doing is we're working with the local workforce professionals to build some of those skills. We're moving away from just following what the program says. First you have to do this, then that. And moving more towards a career coaching way of working with a job seeker to get to some of the really good assessments; sitting down and actually relating to the job seeker on an individual basis instead of, well, I have to check this box, sort of basis.

I think that we have a lot that the Title 1 system can learn from the different parts of the system. I consider adult education and vocational rehabilitation part of the larger system so this integrated planning, I think, will only strengthen the system once we work out some of these kinks and terminology. I think it is really a different way of looking at facilitation. What that means is that it's not only different skills for many of the people who are in the local areas, but we're going to need to build a little bit more, in some cases a lot more, cultural sensitivity, because we're going to be dealing in a more, in some ways, intimate way of really getting to know the client - and the customer choice aspect will always still be front and center. For those of us who spent a lot of time in the career development aspect, it's actually very exciting. What it also means is we really need to think through, at the local area, what do we have in terms of tools that will help facilitate this change. Do we have the right assessments? Or are we giving people a particular assessment because that's what we've always done, and haven't really thought about who are the individuals coming through our door? Is it an individual with a disability? Is it an individual for whom English is not their native language? Is it a dislocated worker? And making sure that we have a variety of tools and a variety of different methods so that we can help them do a little bit more career exploration. I think one of the things that we also need to be mindful of is, even with the streamlined approach, there's still going to be limited money for actual training. So we're going to need to really leverage, to the extent that we can, the work-based learning opportunities, be they apprenticeship programs or any other type of work-based learning opportunities for youth and for adults.

And not everyone needs training. So the workforce practitioner is really going to need to think long and hard about what this individual needs in order to be successful. What are the goals that need to be met? What's the timeline? And how do we facilitate that actually happening? So more problem-solving, more innovation, more really understanding what it takes in order to make this person successful. What type of supportive services are necessary? And who in the community may have those supportive systems or services, be they transportation or anything else?

So, I'm actually really excited about this opportunity. There's some things that we need to work out around contracting and who's going to do what, and how and where. But in terms of the impact on the job seeker, I'm hoping it's just going to make their life a lot easier and a lot more meaningful when they come into one of the centers.

How can people with disabilities be more included in the triangular relationship between higher education, the workforce investment system and employers and what those three partners are trying to work on together?

Bridget Brown: When we are creating career pathways, which I am huge fan of, they are going to really be dependent on having quality and comprehensive local labor market information. So whatever career pathway is being developed at the local level, we do have to keep in mind that the ultimate goal in our system, at any rate, is employment. So the on/off ramp and the multiple points are absolutely critical – and working with our training providers, which include, obviously community colleges, but also others, to integrate more short-term training opportunities and more flexible scheduling. Not everyone is going to be able to make it to a training program during the day. They may have other types of things that they've got going on or they may be working part-time or have family responsibilities. And local businesses are going to need somebody now. So (you need to) think more flexibility, think short-term options as well, but make sure that your labor market information is real, is current and make sure that when you are putting resources into a career pathway, that, ultimately, there are jobs available in your community at the end of the pathway.


Bridget Brown is executive director of the National Association of Workforce Development Professionals (NAWDP), a position she has held since 2008. Bridget leads efforts to strengthen our nation's workforce development systems and improve the skills and effectiveness of workforce professionals across the country. Prior to her role at NAWDP, she was the executive director of America's Career Resource Network Association, and the director of program development for the National Skills Standards Board at the U.S. Department of Labor. Bridget is a certified workforce development professional, a global career facilitator instructor, and has more than 25 years of policy experience in personnel certification, workforce development, career and technical education and advocacy.

This edited transcript excerpt is from the first of a four-part LEAD Center webinar series on WIOA. Sign up for the three remaining webinars in the WIOA series below:

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